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Clean coal, dirty business?

By Tony Troughton-Smith - posted Monday, 28 April 2008

While there may be no question of WWF Australia's good intentions in adding its name to the coalition calling for increased emphasis on research into Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS), is it really advisable to campaign for an increase in government investment (financial, but also philosophical) in this still mythical technology?

The feasibility of the basic idea is not in question: we know it's possible to remove carbon dioxide from either the exhaust gases or feedstock of a power station, and then pump it underground. However, my understanding is that it remains highly unlikely that what is a relatively simple laboratory process can be scaled up to address the vast volumes of CO2 produced by power stations, especially (but not only) when retro-fitting the technology to existing plants, in locations where no suitable sequestration site is close by.

It is even possible that coal corporations already know that the process is not viable, but continue promoting CCS in order to maintain share prices and prolong the industry’s lifespan. Getting governments to subscribe to this would obviously be very effective from a corporate viewpoint.


If public funds were infinite, calling for such investment would not reduce governments’ ability to concurrently support the development of genuinely sustainable generation options (geothermal, wind, waves, solar thermal, solar-to-hydrogen, algae, whatever), but sadly this is not so. From finite funds, anything spent on the highly speculative CCS venture is money filched forever from totally proven (or at least totally feasible) technologies just waiting to take up the energy demand currently met by filthy fossil fuels.

Then there is the philosophical investment I mentioned: governments hate to admit they have gone down a blind alley (especially when they were warned before entering it). As they commit yet more public funds to CCS ventures, it will become increasingly difficult for them to admit it was the wrong choice, even when it's plain to the rest of us. And all this will be wasting yet more time, currently the scarcest commodity of all, as well as taxpayers' money.

The fossil fuel industries, especially coal, have been shown to run a very effective lobbying organisation which reached right to the heart of the previous federal government, and probably the current one and state governments too. This explains, in large part, the difficulty nascent alternative clean energy technologies experience in getting any traction with ministers (prime, sub-prime or otherwise).

It is terrifying to think that these same massive, highly-leveraged dinosaur industries might also have managed to get their lobbyists embedded into hitherto respected, even revered, environmental NGOs such as WWF, but when they are seen holding hands with them and singing from the same song sheet, the awful possibility demands consideration. One wonders if WWF has, does, or will receive any funding (directly or indirectly, in cash or kind) from the coal industry, any of its members or associated organisations.

I understand the Australian coal industry is currently exporting record volumes of coal to China, and presumably being well rewarded. It is certainly not short of funds. If it sees the writing on the wall and decides to fast-track its research into CCS in the hope doing so may prolong the age of the dinosaur (without killing off its host planet in the process) then presumably this can only be for the good, but how can it deserve public funding? The only beneficiaries will be those with shares in the coal industry, whose dividends will be boosted if a smaller proportion of their industry’s own profits are required for reinvestment in R&D.

Surely the government should devote the portion of its (much more limited) resources that is available for energy research to less well-endowed technologies which can, however, promise us a genuinely sustainable energy supply, in perpetuity?

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About the Author

Tony Troughton-Smith is an ageing Australian systems analyst and activist currently exiled in the UK, concerned about global overheating, peak oil, social justice and corporate globalisation. Hence a lefty bleeding heart, hence heritage listed!

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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